I felt great after watching The High Note, upbeat, relaxed and charmed. Sure, I realized the story was definitely a fable—a twist at the end is something straight out of a telenovela—but I had such a fun time watching, and I liked the characters so much, I chose not to care. The High Note, whose theatrical release was dashed and launched immediately to on-demand platforms thanks to the pandemic, is the perfect movie to stream at home, even for $20.
Set in the glittery world of the LA music world comes the story of Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish), a superstar in a weird twilight of her career. She’s still packing arenas, but the fans only want to hear her No. 1 hits from yesteryear. Her manager (played with biting charm by Ice Cube) wants her to take a residency in Vegas ala Cher and Britney Spears, but Grace longs to return to the studio to create new music. Vegas to her is code for being put out to pasture, albeit being paid handsomely for it.
Her ally in creativity and against Vegas is her personal assistant of three years, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), an aspiring music producer who admires Grace’s music even as she chafes a bit under her sometimes unreasonable demands. Grace and Maggie’s relationship is at the heart of The High Note. There is real affection there, even if their bond is tested by Grace’s intermittent bouts of treating Maggie like an expendable intern, not a valued employee and friend.
While Grace fights the forces that would have her “retire” from originality and creativity, Maggie is on her own path, lit by an ambition to pursue her dream of producing music. She lives and breathes music and can describe in glowing detail the drum solo from an album released before she was born. And she’s been secretly remixing Grace’s upcoming live studio album. But will Grace or her handlers give Maggie a shot at being a producer?
Complicating things in a good way is Maggie’s relationship with David (a likeable Kelvin Harrison Jr.). They meet extra cute at a Whole Foods-type grocery store, bantering about all the songs with California in the title. Their chemistry sparks from the get go. As it turns out (and this is the fairytale part), David can sing like an angel or Sam Cooke—take your pick. And he needs a producer, which she isn’t, not technically. When Maggie pretends she is an established producer, you know things will blow up before they are resolved.
Harrison and Johnson are both sweet and winsome, but it is Tracee Ellis Ross who steals the show. It’s fascinating to watch her play an aging diva as the real-life daughter of Diana Ross (there are a couple of fun winks about this). She sings six original songs (one of which is sure to be nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar), and channels her famous mother in ways we know about and surely ways we don’t. She shows magnetism and vulnerability in a multifaceted portrayal of crazy fame.
Christian viewers will recognize the emptiness of stardom, but perhaps they will also glimpse the way we as society consume our stars, overlooking their God-made human dignity and seeing them as commodities. The movie doesn’t go much deeper than that, but as a romantic comedy filled with music and love for music, The High Note hits all the right notes. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language, and suggestive references). (Focus Features)